Boeing is continuing to refine its concept for a next-generation F/A-XX advanced jet fighter to follow the present-day F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. Just in time for the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space Exposition in Washington, Boeing released a new artist’s impression of what an operational F/A-XX would look like.
The F/A-XX, as now depicted, is a tailless, twin-engine fighter with an unusual sleek and thin configuration that appears to be be optimized for all-aspect broadband stealth – deemed essential for combat when confronted by modern anti-access/area denial networks.
All along, Boeing has said that its F/A-XX would be optionally manned – available in manned or unmanned versions. The new image shows the aircraft with canards – foreplanes at the front of the fuselage such as those used on the Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale, Saab Gripen, and Chengdu J-20 – a feature that could be controversial because motion by forward mounted control surfaces could compromise the fighter’s frontal radar cross-section, reducing its stealth properties. The nose shape is more sculpted than in previous depictions and the engine nacelles are now on top of the fuselage. The engines have diverterless supersonic inlets like those on the F-35.
In the manned version rearward visibility appears to be restricted without the aid of a sensor apparatus similar to the F-35’s distributed aperture system of six infrared cameras. Inability for the pilot to have good visual contact directly behind – the “six o’clock” position – is one frequent criticism of the F-35.
For now, the definition of an optimist might be someone who expects significant funding for F/A-XX to become available in today’s cramped budget environment. Boeing has access to a token amount of Navy funding but is essentially investing its own resources into design work on the fighter. While the company clearly sees its concept as a quantum leap forward, it is playing down “fifth generation” and “sixth generation” talk, which many perceive as a misleading way to characterize fighter cohorts. Boeing spokesperson Didi VanNierop said the company will not display a new model of the aircraft at SeaAirSpace 2013 and that, “there really isn’t much new news here.”
The planemaker is performing engineering work on its planned future fighter in response to an April 2012 Request For Information (RFI) from Naval Air Systems Command. The RFI looks ahead to replacing the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler in the 2030s, when these aircraft will begin to reach the end of their 9,000-hour useful lifespan.
The company’s focus is on a Navy, carrier-based aircraft but observers believe the St Louis, Missouri-based Boeing fighter team – with its heritage in the McDonnell Aircraft Company and warplanes like the F-4 Phantom II and F-15 Eagle – could very well design a superfighter for the Air Force as well.